In these two departments, where hundreds of copies of these first human-sized anthropomorphic figures known in Western Europe would still sleep underground, some individuals who discover them want to keep them, as the law authorizes them to do.

In his garage, Jean-Pierre Bascoul, shows a two-sided statue-menhir that he found a year and a half ago in a field. "I scraped it a little with the plow," he regrets, pointing to superficial traces.

"I would like her to stay here," says the 61-year-old farmer, who has already ceded another statue-menhir to the small museum of Murat-sur-Vèbre, in the Tarn, but plans to exhibit at home this new "treasure that is for everyone".

The community of communes of the Monts de Lacaune, of which Murat-sur-Vèbre is a member, intends to help him develop an exhibition space protecting this monument, says Marie-Christine Granier, in charge of museums in this community.

This is already the case for Yvan Garenq, who exhibits in his garden a statue-menhir discovered 45 years ago: "I found it while ploughing. He's my guardian angel," he laughs, not hiding his "pride".

-'The original in the field'-

"It's better to see the original on the field. A lot of people come to see her. If it were a copy, there would be fewer people," adds the 88-year-old former farmer who, to better welcome visitors, has set up a wooden table with benches near the monument and its shelter that the community of communes is rebuilding.

To better preserve them, some statues-menhirs were sheltered and replaced by copies installed where they had originally stood.

Yves Gareng next to the statue-menhir he discovered 45 years ago, on July 24, 2023 in Murat-sur-Vèbre, in the Tarn © Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

And the community of communes has just "bought a large car garage" to store originals, says Ms. Granier who tirelessly continues her task of raising awareness of the protection of these monuments, also threatened by the action of humans.

"On one site, we had even engraved +Marie, I love you+", she regrets.

And, adds Alain Robert, president of a local association, the Heritage Research Center of Rieumontagné, a farmer who had discovered a statue-menhir "told me: +Either you remove it or I put a shot of dynamite. I would like to plough my field+".

Buried or reused for construction, these statues, carved between 3,300 and 2,200 BC, were rediscovered from the second half of the nineteenth century. They have been classified as "feminine", wearing for example necklaces, or "masculine", with a harness, while other attributes (face, belt, hands or feet) are common to both.

Beyond their appearance, very little is known about the significance of these monuments appreciated by artists like Pierre Soulages and fashioned in sandstone, granite or diorite.

A visitor observes a statue-menhir at the museum of megaliths, July 24, 2023 in Murat-sur-Vèbre, in the Tarn © Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

From the 70s, interest in these statues has increased significantly, tractors ploughing deeper have facilitated their discovery, says Mr. Robert.

However, the carved parts of some statues-menhirs that remained in the open air tend to fade.

"It shows the fragility of these monuments that have been preserved because they have been buried. From the moment they are taken out of the ground, like any archaeological vestige, they degrade very quickly," according to Aurélien Pierre, director of the Fenaille Museum in Rodez, which has famous pieces including the emblematic "Dame de Saint-Sernin".

Some 160 statues-menhirs discovered in the Haut-Languedoc (Aveyron, Tarn and north-west of the Hérault) ranging from a few tens of centimeters to more than two meters in height are officially listed but "hundreds" others would remain to be discovered, according to Mr. Pierre, buried under fields or woods.

Similar pieces have been found elsewhere in France, Italy or Switzerland but Haut-Languedoc is one of the areas with the highest "concentration of statues-menhirs" in Western Europe, he adds.

A statue-menhir, July 24, 2023 in Nages, in the Tarn © Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

That is why Ms. Granier or Mr. Robert, as well as other heritage advocates, are always trying to raise awareness of the existence of these monuments, in order to discover others, protect them and "leave them as a legacy for future generations".

© 2023 AFP